Friday, July 11, 2014

A Summer at Grandpa's (Dong Dong De Jia Qi)

A SUMMER AT GRANDPA’S (Dong Dong De Jia Qi)      A-          
Taiwan  (93 mi)  1984  d:  Hou Hsiao-hsien

Time passes amidst the laughter,
What’s left are the memories. 
—opening valedictorian oration

The film is inspired by screenwriter Chu Tien-wen's childhood memories.  It is the first installment of Hou Hsiao-Hsien's coming-of-age trilogy that features three different coming-of-age stories by three prominent Taiwanese screenwriters, including A Time to Live and a Time to Die (Tong nien wang shi) (1985) inspired by Hou Hsiao-hsien himself, and Dust in the Wind (Lian lian feng chen) (1986) inspired by Wu Nien-jen.  A sweet, gentle, and unconventional film, in the sense that a story is never really told, instead reality unfolds using a detached calm where we observe what happens with little or no commentary.  In this manner, the filmmaker deflects all powers of purpose and meaning to the viewer.  Told using natural sounds and a series of personal event vignettes, the film centers around the lives of two children, 11-year old Tung-Tung (Wang Chi-kwang) and his 4-year old sister Ting-Ting (Sun Cheeng-Lee).  When their mother is hospitalized with gall bladder complications, the father, played by fellow Taiwanese film director Edward Yang, stays by her side while their uncle takes the two kids to spend the summer with their grandfather, a stern, elderly doctor in a small, rural town.  The film seems to have had a profound influence on two other Asian films in particular, including Hayao Miyazaki’s animated masterwork MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO (1988), which has a similar storyline of children the same age, an absent mother recovering in a hospital, a community search for a child temporarily going lost or missing, but also a similar color palette where the gentle, pastoral look of the countryside bears a strange resemblance.  In that film, the children’s imagination constitutes the developing storyline, while here the world is seen through the eyes and experiences of two young children.  The other is Edward Yang’s YI YI (2000), which also has a missing mother sequence while reprising the role of Ting-Ting as a teenage girl who develops a special affection and close-knit relationship with her grandmother, becoming a profoundly insightful family drama that beautifully balances the carefree innocence of youth with their initial exposure to the difficult and sometimes threatening realities of adult life.  Interestingly the end credits theme music for the film was composed by Edward Yang. 

This trilogy is particularly influenced by Japanese director Yasujirō Ozu, especially the incessant use of trains rumbling by, which reflect the passage of time, but also the fixed camera placement, omitting the use of close ups, where scenes are frequently shot from a single point of view, where any action is often seen in the farthest regions of the shot.  Interior shots have a painterly composition with a ground level camera, where characteristic locations are empty rooms or kitchens, where the visual style is quietly contemplative, capturing the mood with meticulous detail of banal and ordinary events.  While Taiwan was a colony of Japan for over 50 years, it’s interesting how pervasive their aesthetic has become imprinted into the Taiwanese consciousness, where this director would eventually develop a love affair with long shots, but he was also one of the first Taiwanese directors to use indigenous dialect in his films.  Born as a member of the Hakka ethnic minority in southern Guangdong province in mainland China, but raised in rural Taiwan, as his parents emigrated to Kaohsiung, Taiwan in 1949 while escaping the bloodshed of the Chinese civil war, Hou entered the National Taiwan College of the Arts after serving in the military, graduating in 1972 where he worked as a salesman for a year until he landed a job as a screenwriter and assistant director in the commercial Taiwanese film industry.  Working his way up, his earliest films are examples of low-budget products from that industry, which had extremely rigid and often ineffective guidelines for churning out technically proficient commercial movies at the time, often starring pop stars in lightweight comedies.  Once Hou became a director, he began dismantling many of these practices one by one, finding them cumbersome and overly limiting, developing the groundwork on his 80’s pictures for a new aesthetic that makes him such a significant director in the world today.  The films he produced in the 90’s are among the most original, aesthetically impactful films of the last 50 years, where French director Olivier Assayas flew to Taiwan and filmed a living documentary portrait, HHH – A Portrait of Hou Hsiao-hsien (1997). Today, like everyone else it seems, this director has had difficulty obtaining funding for new films, where he hasn’t made a film in 7 years, the longest period of absence throughout his entire career.   

Tung-Tung arrives from the city, bringing his mechanized remote control car, while the local kids are playing with turtles, where the contrast between city and country is immediately apparent.   We witness rural methods of catching birds, climbing trees, or boys swimming naked in a river, where they have a rude habit of constantly excluding Ting-Ting, who reluctantly clings to her toy electric fan, eventually throwing the boys’ clothes into the river.  The film shows how the children try to insulate themselves from the outside world but can never quite escape it, being compelled to include adult events in their life of which they have little comprehension.  There’s such an effortless, natural feel to this film, where the film’s strengths are catching fleeting moments, finding the rhythms of everyday life, where summer represents all the time in the world for young kids, constantly seeing groups of children at play, teasing one another, witnessing something odd or terrifying, sometimes discovering something unexpectedly, other times just laying around the floor, bored with nothing to do, all told without pretense, seen through the vantage point of the children, where we hear the continuous sound of trains mixed with children’s voices.  Tung-Tung writes beautiful letters to his parents that show a delicate sensitivity but also a lack of understanding of what the adults around him are up to.  While most of the film is bathed in sunshine, the film has a hard edge without a hint of sentimentality.  The kids witness a robbery and mugging in progress and stare silently from afar, completely non-judgmental, while also enjoying the firecrackers going off on the street filled with food vendors with their stacks of food, while the offscreen explosions of sound continue through many of the next scenes.  The grandfather (Koo Chuen) shows a social concern, leading a discussion among neighbors of what’s in the best interest for a wandering, mentally ill girl who has gotten pregnant, but he is also harshly judgmental, forbidding the children's uncle Chang-ming to marry his girlfriend Pi-yun, even angrily attacking his son's moped when he learns he has gotten his girlfriend pregnant.  Clearly the absence of Ting-Ting and Tung-Tung's mother is deeply traumatic for both, but the film gets at this sorrow and confusion without ever simply stating it.  Also there is a gorgeously affecting relationship that develops between Ting-Ting and the mentally ill woman which is all done without a word of dialogue.  This typifies what the filmmaker is attempting to do, using no embellished musical themes, relying instead on recording the natural rhythms of life, as recalled in childhood remembrances of things past.

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